US veterans march from Philadelphia to Valley Forge before the Winter Solider hearings last March. (Photo: Susie Husted)
Last March, a group of soldiers and veterans gathered in Washington, DC, to recount their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. They spent three days testifying, confessing and mourning. They revealed atrocities never before spoken of - the brutal murders of civilians, the destruction of homes and villages, the rape and sexual assault of both civilians and US military women - and displayed photos and video footage to back up their claims. The event was titled "Winter Soldier," harkening back to the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, in which veterans gathered in Detroit to give testimony about war crimes they had committed or witnessed in Vietnam. Both Winter Soldiers zeroed in on the US military policy's devastating effects, straight from the mouths of those charged with carrying out that policy.
On Saturday, March 14, a third Winter Soldier conference unfolded - this time, overseas. In the leadup to NATO's 60th summit next month in Strasbourg, France, Winter Soldier Europe took place in Freiburg, Germany. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from Germany, the UK and the US testified, revealing the impact of the occupations on civilians and service members alike. The event was organized by the nonprofit Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), in an effort to amplify the voices of soldiers - voices that are often drowned out by military leadership and political commentators, according to Zack Baddorf, one of Winter Soldier Europe's organizers.
"We've all heard American generals on TV," Baddorf told Truthout. "We've all heard the talking heads. We've all heard the politicians. But by hearing voices of troops who were on the ground, who experienced the reality of combat, the event hopefully inspired resistance and true change. We've served our country by joining the military; now, we're serving our nation by opposing this war."
For Chris Capps-Schubert, head of IVAW's Europe chapter and the originator of Winter Soldier Europe, the event represented an intertwining of the personal and political effects of the "war on terror." The testifiers' words issued a vivid warning to the leaders converging in Strasbourg in April, urging them to consider the human toll that inevitably follows militarized policy decisions. On a broader scale, the event called out to the international public, reminding them that even though the global economic crisis has shifted attention away from the "war on terror's" consequences, the bloodshed continues. And, on a personal level, Winter Soldier Europe allowed service members to bear witness to the shocking, sad, sometimes torturous experiences with which they wrestle long after returning home.
Capps-Schubert served in the Army in Iraq from November 2005 to September 2006, then went AWOL, refusing to deploy to Afghanistan. He now lives in Germany and counsels prospective deserters.
"The idea to have a Winter Soldier in Europe came about soon after I learned that President Obama would be visiting the French-German border region, and using the NATO meeting as a possible opportunity to pressure European allies in NATO to commit more troops to Afghanistan," Capps-Schubert told Truthout. "I couldn't easily accept that, and I thought it was very important for the public and hopefully world leaders to hear the truth of what is going on in the 'Global War on Terror' before they decide to commit more fully to it."
Thus, the testimonies focused on eyewitness accounts: the intimate details of war that often go unnoticed by the general public, though they best convey its horror. Testifiers ranged from a former Guantanamo Bay prison guard, to an active-duty member of the German armed forces, to a clinical psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. American veteran Andre Shepherd, who worked as an Apache helicopter airframe mechanic near Tikrit, spoke of his agonizing deployment to Iraq, followed by a decision to go AWOL.
"It is no secret that the Apache is a devastating weapon," Shepherd testified. "When I looked at the videos of suspected insurgents being shredded by machine guns or blown to bits by the missiles, I [saw] the results of my handiwork. After combining that with the damage to the infrastructure, widespread poverty and disease, accidental deaths and millions of refugees, I thought to myself, 'What have we done?' I do not believe that there is a worse feeling in the world than to believe what you were doing was the right thing, only to find out that you contributed to the spread of misery and destruction."
Shepherd described his change of heart, and of consciousness, his realization that he could no longer continue to go about his "handiwork." Now, he speaks out against the war and has made his choice to leave the military a public example of the deserter's cause.
"We set down our stakes, and proceeded to run the country like it was a colonial property even to this very day," Shepherd told Truthout. "We have killed, tortured and bombed the civilians into submission, so much so that many people have fled their homes. I made up my mind to never again support the evil mechanisms of our foolish leaders there, and in April 2007 I made good on that promise."
Shepherd is currently seeking asylum in Germany, and is the first Iraq War veteran to apply for refugee status in Europe. His application cites Nuremberg Principle IV, which states that a person is not exempted from international law simply because he or she was following orders while committing crimes.
Christian Neumann, a member of the German armed forces who served in Northern Afghanistan, testified about the German role in the war - a topic, he said, that few Germans know much about.
"I will get new information from the testifiers to tell our German soldiers," he told Truthout previous to the event, pointing out that elections are coming up in Germany, and Winter Soldier Europe's revelations could prove eye-opening to German voters. "Although a majority of our inhabitants don't support violent military operations, our governments - European, federal and state - try strongly to keep the foreign military missions out of the election campaigns."
Neumann mentioned that the German government hopes to legalize the use of security contractors like Pretoria, which he compared to Blackwater. Contrary to the wishes of the German people, prominent forces in the government hope to "involve the Germans more and more in the fight against an enemy, who we can't see," he said.
The testimony of former Guantanamo Bay prison guard Chris Arendt, an American, touched on a similar theme of underinformation. Arendt testified that he and his fellow guards - mostly young, low-ranking officers, who'd received very little training - operated on the principle of dehumanizing the "enemy" as much as possible. He described the process used to "extract" prisoners from their cells for interrogations.
"First they're going to get sprayed with ... an oil-based irritant, like Mace, but military grade," Arendt testified. "Then five men in riot gear storm into the cell, and are free to beat this detainee for however long they want to, however they please. This happens multiple times daily, this is something the soldiers in Guantanamo Bay oftentimes take pride [in]. This is something we mark on our helmets. This is something we talk about when we get home. This is something people look forward to - it's a sport; it's a score; it's a number; it's something that you've chalked up while you're down there. We didn't ever think that these people were human beings. We were told that Muslims wiped their asses with their left hands, so we shouldn't touch their left hands, and that was our cultural training for dealing with detainees."
American Eddie Falcon, who served in the air force in Iraq and Afghanistan, described the dehumanization process further in his testimony, noting that diminishing Iraqis' and Afghans' humanity not only makes individual acts of violence more palatable; it also makes the war as a whole easier for soldiers - and the public - to digest.
"If you don't identify with your enemy as a human, it makes it easier to kill them; it makes it easier to torture them; it makes it easier to raid their houses, to blow up their communities," Falcon testified. "People would be saying things like, 'These people are crazy around here; they're Muslims; they don't even have Jesus, you know.' They'd be saying, 'We should just blow the whole fucking place up.'"
In exposing the distorted thought processes and misinformation that both governments and soldiers live by in the "war on terror," the Winter Soldier Europe testifiers challenged the official picture of a morally sound and strategically necessary mission. Their stories painted a scene of confusion and uncertainty, in which destruction happened in response to dehumanization and faceless orders, not out of patriotism or an overarching sense of purpose.
As he relives his experience in the US Army and waits for the verdict on his asylum plea in Germany, Andre Shepherd hopes that Winter Soldier Europe's message will reach both of the populations he is tied to.
"Too many people have the misconception that these conflicts are something noble and just, when the exact opposite is happening right under their noses," Shepherd said. "Our aim is to shatter those myths, tell the people what is really going on down there and to ask them to help stop this madness. I pray that our efforts will not be in vain."